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Prosecutors begin case against an Army commander

Officer accused of aiding enemy

BAGHDAD -- Military prosecutors began laying the groundwork yesterday for the case against an Army commander accused of aiding the enemy, suggesting he was a pornography collector who let a "high-value" detainee use his cellphone and carried on inappropriate relationships with the man's daughter.

The line of questioning pursued on the first day of an Article 32 hearing, which will determine if Lieutenant Colonel William H. Steele should be court-martialed, appeared aimed at showing he abused his position as commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment at Camp Cropper in Baghdad, and later with the 89th Military Police Brigade in Baghdad.

In both positions, Steele, 51, a reservist from Virginia, oversaw hundreds of detainees, many of them former high-ranking officials in Iraq. He faces nine counts, including aiding the enemy, conduct unbecoming an officer, failing to obey an order, possession of pornographic videos, and mishandling classified information.

One witness testified yesterday that he saw Steele copying material from a government computer. Another said Steele gave the detainee's daughter a box containing computer programs and what appeared to be blueprints.

The charge of aiding the enemy stems from allegations Steele gave his cellphone to a detainee and allowed the prisoner to make unmonitored phone calls, something that witnesses said is never permitted.

The hearing provided a glimpse into the lives of detainees in the US-run facilities. Lieutenant Colonel Quentin Crank, whose 494th military police unit replaced Steele's at Camp Cropper in October, said the only time detainees had access to cellular phones was when they asked to make a call. Then, Crank said, they must give guards the number. Officials make the call, and an interpreter listens to the conversation. All calls are logged into a book.

The charge against Steele carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, military officials attending the hearing said, although if aggravating circumstances were added, the penalty could be death.

Details surrounding the accusations were not read aloud in the hearing room, at the Camp Victory military base in Baghdad, but the questions posed by attorneys from both sides shed light on them.

The first witness, Army Special Agent Patrick Rasmussen, a computer forensics specialist, said he found 37 adult pornographic videos and 122 pornographic photographs on a laptop that prosecutors seized as part of the investigation. The hearing went into closed session several times when evidence deemed classified was presented.

Prosecutors also allege that Steele maintained a relationship with an Iraqi interpreter he had worked with in 2005 and 2006. Captain Michael A. Rizzotti, one of four lawyers representing the government, questioned Crank about his own relationships with interpreters in an apparent attempt to highlight Steele's alleged improprieties.

The alleged wrongdoing is said to have occurred between October 2005 and February 2007, when Steele was removed from his post. He was detained in March.

Under an Article 32 hearing, both sides may present witnesses. The officer hearing the case can then decide whether to drop the case or recommend a court-martial based on the evidence and testimony presented. The hearing resumes today, when witnesses who are in the United States are expected to testify by phone.